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Entries in servants in pakistan (1)

Tuesday
Jan032012

The Help... in Mississippi or in Pakistan

I finally read (and watched) The Help a few days ago, and I liked it.  Sue me. Because, apparently, the movie and book are, according to some, racist and condescending in its portrayal of African American women of the 1950s.

Our own sensibilities regarding discrimination are certainly highly informed by, if not limited to, our own experience. I may perceive something as Islamophobic whereas you might feel I'm grabbing at straws.  To deny that our identities do not play a crucial factor in that disagreement feels naive to me.

I am not an African American, I did not live through Jim Crow or the "civil rights era," so I'm not comfortable dismissing the opinions of those who find fault with this book's treatment of those subjects. Except. I do have a very unexpected and highly personal experience with one important facet that's portrayed in this book.

I spent most of my summers in Pakistan when I was growing up.  I have memories of family, laughter, lush gardens, and great food. I also have very distinct memories of the help.

From cooking food to the basics of rearing children, young women and sometimes young boys participate in the management of Pakistani homes to the extent that daily life for the families who inhabit those homes would be near impossible without these individuals.  By my last count, my paternal home in Pakistan had about twelve "domestics" working in it.  These people clean the house, cook the food, buy the groceries, do the laundry, and tend the gardens. As much as my own family, these people are an intrinsic part of what I associate with Pakistan.

There is a scene in The Help where Minnie, a woman incidentally deemed a neo-Mammy character, is reminding her daughter that as a domestic in a white household that she should quickly establish a cupboard with her own plate, cup and silverware.  As I watched that scene in the movie, a long forgotten memory that took place in a humid Pakistani kitchen nearly sixteen years ago rushed to the forefront of my mind.

It was a hot summer day, and I was thirsty. One of my favorite things about drinking water in the subcontinent is that when folks want to be real casual, they use cups made of polished steel.  There's something about grabbing that shiny cup and filling it with cold water that acts as a sensory appetizer to the refreshment that will soon be eradicating the dry, dusty feeling that only a Lahori summer seems to be able to infuse into your bones.

I grabbed a steel glass on top of the fridge, poured out cool water from the fridge into the glass and relished the coolness on my fingertips as I slowly drew the steel to my mouth. And then I heard my aunt scream like someone had pulled out a gun, "Noooo!! Not that one!!"

My older cousin was also in the kitchen and immediately solved the problem.  She grabbed the glass from my hand.  "That's Tahira's glass....  don't use that one."

"No, I'm fine. I like drinking out of steel." I thought they were trying to tell me it was gauche to drink from a steel cup or something. I think I assumed they thought I was American and somehow I should drink out of glass instead.

My cousin took the steel cup from my hand and replaced it with a glass of water.  Then without the slightest hint of subtlety, I looked directly at Tahira, a girl three maybe four years younger than me, and mumbled, "Oh, unless, I'm sorry, do you mind, Tahira... I didn't mean..."

I thought maybe she was one of those people that are particular about who drinks out of their special glass or something. Yes, people like that exist.  I happen to be married to one. Tahira just smiled sheepishly at me and looked away.

My cousin who is an extremely intelligent and astute young woman approached me later to discuss the incident. "See, Faiqa," she looked into my eyes earnestly , "I know it's different in America, but you don't know about these people that work in our homes.  They have different personal habits than us, it's better that they use their own glasses and such."

I wasn't sure how to respond, but I will tell you this: I was not angered by this when it was explained to me.  Maybe it was because I was only 19.  Maybe it was because the young woman who was explaining it to me was a person I loved and a person who I have seen engage in some of the kindest acts that I have ever seen human beings perform. Maybe because the way it was explained to me was with such a sense of certainty.

I watched that "neo-Mammy" remind her daughter about having her own glass and plate and I began to remember more things.

I remember one of the girls being sent home because her clothes looked like they hadn't been washed properly, and I distinctly remember the look in her eye right before she walked out.  I remember the woman who gave her baby up to American missionaries so that he would have a chance to become educated. I remember being told to lock my things away when a servant who had worked in a home for over twelve years cleaned my room.

I remember not feeling right about these things.

And, yes, I remember these people having their own bathrooms in homes wealthy enough to accommodate that.

Up until that scene, I basked in the righteous indignation that many of us whose parents were not born here feel when we watch these movies about racism and injustice.  As if this is something that is exclusive to the history of the new land that we inhabit and that our pasts are somehow unsullied by the extreme unpleasantness of it all.

In my family's defense, they are not the exception -- they are most definitely the rule in this part of the world.  As a matter of fact, servants in our home are treated so well, that some of them have been with the family for decades, and, again, I would not presume to postulate on the emotions between African American maids in the 50s and the women they served.  However, I do remember that when I got married, Tahira, the little girl who stood in that kitchen years ago hugged me the day I got married and asked me to please not forget to come back to Pakistan.

Maybe the book "The Help" is racist and condescending.  I have no idea.  All I know is that as I read that book, I walked away from it understanding that discrimination does not only victimize the people who are on its receiving end.

There is a price that your soul pays, I think, for believing that because someone is poor, black, whatever that somehow they are unclean, untrustworthy or unable to take care of themselves. There is something very sad about observing people who have read many books, have been afforded so many opportunities and possess such goodness in their hearts as they lie to themselves about the fact that things are the way they are because this is the way they have always been.

Books and movies are valuable for many reasons, and while I appreciate the criticisms of this book as valid identity based positions, I am grateful for what the book taught me about my own.

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